Health food shop for sale

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Spotted the following item in the Classified section: “Health Food Store for sale.  Genuine reason for quick sale.  Current owner too ill to continue working.”

OK, perhaps I used a little poetic license there, but the real situation is the fact that recent studies have shown that health food supplements give no guarantees of superior health, and in fact some supplements may even be harmful!

A panel of five experts, led by Dr Maria Elena Martinez, from the University of California at San Diego, wrote, “Undoubtedly, use is driven by a common belief that supplements can improve health and protect against disease, and that at worst, they are harmless.  However, the assumption that any dietary supplement is safe under all circumstances and in all quantities is no longer empirically reasonable.”

The US scientists said there was no good evidence that supplement pills and capsules reduced the risk of cancer in healthy individuals, pointing out that antioxidants such as beta carotene, and vitamins C and E might even have biological effects that promote cancer.  Now that is certainly not good news for the “anti-oxidant” crowd.

One of the biggest problems to be overcome, from the lay persons point of view, is that they are bombarded with amazing claims by the health food industry with health supplements sales estimated at USD 30 billion, said the scientists, who assessed the evidence relating to several supplements including antioxidants, folic acid, vitamin D and calcium.

Looking at the well known anti-oxidants, they are believed to counter the destructive effects of rogue oxygen molecules called free radicals.  Oxidative stress by free radicals, which attack cell membranes, proteins and DNA, has been linked to cancer and heart disease.  But the US authors, writing in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, argue that the supposed benefits of antioxidant supplements are largely a myth, saying people were misled by “messages from supplement manufacturers” promoting the health benefits of their products, including cancer prevention.

Now, conventional medicine is subject to rigorous testing (though I will admit we do make some mistakes from time to time) and this is called Evidence Based Medicine, or EBM as we love acronyms.

Now according to the US studies, some animal, laboratory and observational studies had appeared to show that dietary supplements could lower cancer risk; however, those findings were not confirmed by the “gold-standard” in evidence-based medicine, which requires randomized controlled trials (RCTs).  Only a small number of RCTs had been carried out to test the effectiveness of dietary supplements, said the experts – and several of these had reported increased risks.

There are those who will claim that because the “natural” products come from plants, the ingredients are therefore OK for us humans.  This is pseudo-scientific nonsense.  Extracts of plants and herbs are chemicals – and some chemicals can kill, that is why wild animals can die after eating the wrong plants.  So can you!

Unfortunately, despite all the advances in conventional medicine, I have to admit that it is still somewhat of an inexact ‘science’.  We do not have the cures for all ailments, in fact far from it.  We continue to try and most importantly, to test.  With EBM we must test until we have the evidence that any drug or treatment really does work.  This all takes time, as the evidence cannot just hang on one person who got better.  It requires huge series, across the globe.

However, as patients, or sufferers of any complaint, we want that “cure” right now!  Consequently, with all medical conditions where we cannot give the patient the “wonder drug” there is then a tendency for them to try something else, anything else, hoping for the relief that conventional medicine has not promised or delivered.

This turning towards alternatives is then quite easily understood.  For the musculo-skeletal conditions, for example, the “alternatives” are multiple, from magnets to mussels from New Zealand.  But do they really work?  According to the pundits, the green lipped mussels have had numerous clinical trials, and unfortunately, the same number of clinical failures!  However, I believe they are quite nice steamed with garlic, ginger and shallots!

Consider the evidence before expensive alternative treatments!

(Thank you Dr. William for bringing this item to my attention.)